Battle of Narratives: Russia’s War on History

We need to reset relations with Russia on the Kremlin’s terms. That, stripped of its decorative elements, is the argument made by my old friend Anatol Lieven in the New York Times.

Lieven makes three points. Russia is not a global rival to the United States. Instead it is “a regional power struggling to retain a fragment of its former sphere of influence.” In fact, it is not really an adversary at all. It is a “natural ally.” Then there is the opportunity cost of trying to constrain Russia in places like Ukraine. Instead of that we should reduce tensions saving time and effort to deal with other more pressing issues.

We see the collapse of the Soviet empire as a liberation. Mr. Putin and his friends see it as a perhaps temporary geopolitical catastrophe.

In practice, that would mean lifting sanctions, accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea de facto, and arm-twisting Ukraine into accepting a special status for its Kremlin-controlled eastern territories—backed, Lieven suggests, by UN peacekeepers.

It is not clear to me that this is even possible. I think Vladimir Putin’s regime relishes bad relations with the West. They fuel the domestic tale of a virtuous, beleaguered Russia, menaced by duplicitous outsiders. That distracts Russians from the Kremlin’s crashing failure to modernise the country.

Moreover, Putin thinks he is winning. If we concede him Ukraine, he will press home his advantage elsewhere—perhaps by annexing Belarus, or meddling in the Baltic states.

Nor does Syria suggest that Russia is a worthwhile ally against Islamist extremism.

But Lieven’s biggest analytical mistake is his starting point. Russia is not behaving badly because it was provoked by the West, either with NATO expansion or with the European Union’s attempts to develop the ill-fated Eastern Partnership.

Russia cites these as excuses. But we should not take such complaints at face value. NATO tried to build friendly ties with Russia. That project failed because Russia was not willing to be treated equally with other countries, or to treat its neighbors as truly sovereign and independent states. That was Russia’s choice, not ours.

The real problem is the Kremlin’s view of history. We see the collapse of the Soviet empire as a liberation. Mr. Putin and his friends see it as a perhaps temporary geopolitical catastrophe. We would not expect the Dutch, Danes or Israelis to have friendly relations with a German leadership which mourned the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich. We should not apply a double standard to the victims of Stalin’s horrors.

Lieven argues that the West has moved its “strategic frontier” eastwards, and Russia has merely reacted against a land grab. This ignores two important factors. The EU and NATO did not widen their membership at the behest of masterminds in Brussels. They admitted countries which were pounding on the door, demanding the security, prosperity, liberty, decency, dignity and the like which they had been denied by the Iron Curtain.

These countries could have chosen to look towards Russia instead. They have deep linguistic, cultural and historical ties there too, despite all the misery of the Soviet period. Countries like Denmark and the Netherlands gladly integrate themselves with Germany, economically and—in the Dutch case, lately—even militarily.

Russia could have had that relationship with its former empire. It didn’t, because it preferred a post-imperialist sulk, followed by neo-imperialist mischief-making and aggression. Why should the former captive nations have to accept that when something so much better is on offer?

Lieven does concede that the West should fight hard to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania if they are attacked. But, he writes, “it is hard to imagine any realistic situation in which this need will arise.” Let’s hope he is at least right about that.

Originally published by CEPA’s Europe’s Edge

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1 Comment

  1. says: Viido Polikarpus

    It is always enlightening to read Lucas, he understands current developments and lays out our situation here n the Baltics and is capable of always expressing our concerns succinctly and clearly as exemplified by the above article.

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